Even though the exam room was soothing and sterile—like a womb, like a chrysalis—Mrs. Broadside felt unsettled, short of breath.
This was the first time since the incident at the Paxes that she had emerged from the house. She hadn’t even jogged, and Spencer had been doing the grocery runs with limited success. Today, too, she’d had her doubts, not only for fear of being recognized and publicly castigated, but also because Karynne had asked her husband to even out her hair with his electric razor, and the result was a little too close to the “Shame”-era Cersei Lannister for her comfort. But this morning he had been adamant. They’d made the appointment last week and, he reminded her, if she didn’t go now she’d incur a $75 same-day cancellation fee. Besides, he’d said, Dr. Peacock was half-blind. It was more likely the man would trip over a stray stethoscope than notice her hapless hairdo.
“What’s keeping him?” Karynne twisted her knuckles into her thighs, kneading them like loaves of biscotti dough. “He’s been gone for hours. Usually these things take no time at all.”
Spencer eyed his watch. It had been twenty minutes. Dr. Peacock was probably making sure of some things. Checking all the boxes. Karynne should give him some time. Wouldn’t she rather he took all day to get at the problem’s root than come back with the wrong information?
“Of course I would. I just hate being kept in suspense, is all.”
“I doubt that’s his intent.”
“If it is,” said Karynne, her eyes feverish, “I’m going to kill him.”
“Don’t say that. Dr. Peacock’s here to help you—to make you better. That’s what you wanted, right?”
Mrs. Broadside took a few strained breaths. She looked up at the painting on the opposite wall, done in oil in the Rockwell style, of a tabby cat leaping from a brown paper bag. “More than anything,” she said.
“Then why can’t you show Dr. Peacock a little trust? When has he ever steered us wrong before?”
“It’s not that I don’t trust him.”
Spencer rubbed the knee of her white medical gown. “Then what is it?”
“It’s that—it’s that what if they don’t find anything wrong with me? What am I supposed to do then? Just give up and spend the rest of my life not knowing why I ruined it, shuffling around the kitchen like some tormented, forgotten ghost?”
“Nobody’s suggesting that,” said her husband, “and it’s no use worrying about something that hasn’t even happened. Whatever this is—or isn’t—Dr. Peacock will have you fixed right up in no time.”
“God, I hope so. All I know is that I can’t go back to the way things have been. Something’s got to change, and fast. I’m sorry, Spencer. I think the reason I’m so nervous is because part of me feels like nothing short of a miracle will get me out of this clusterf—”
The door opened and in hobbled Ernest Peacock, M.D. He was guided by his nurse, who towered over him, though she couldn’t have been any taller than Mrs. Broadside. Dr. Peacock may have been the shortest, and was in fact the oldest, practicing physician in the state. Karynne had always thought of him as an amiable egg, but now that his skin was all swelled veins and solar lentigos, he looked more like one left in the sun for a year’s worth of afternoons.
“We meet again, Stephen,” said Dr. Peacock. “The results have come back, and the treatment went swimmingly. I’m pleased to say that you’re clinically crab-free for the first time in a dog’s age. At long last, there’ll be cause for celebration in the Miller household tonight.”
Karynne looked at Spencer, who looked at the nurse, who was looking at the doctor as if this happened all the time.
The nurse said, “These are the Broadsides, Dr. Peacock. Karynne—”
“Emphasis on the -rynne—”
“And Spencer,” Spencer said. “Good to see you again.” He extended a hand to the doctor, who didn’t see it.
“Damnation,” said Dr. Peacock. “Forgive me. It appears the only one having a good day around here is Mr. Miller.”
The nurse, whose nametag read “Anita,” still had hold of the physician’s arm. “Mr. Miller’s appointment is for tomorrow,” she said. “Mrs. Broadside’s is this morning. She’s waiting for the X-ray results.”
“Of course.” Dr. Peacock broke free from Anita’s grip, went for the chair, and would’ve sat right in Spencer’s lap if Mr. Broadside hadn’t squirmed his way to the swivel stool. “Thanks for your patience, Karynne. I hope we didn’t keep you in too much suspense.”
Mrs. Broadside’s whole body trembled. Her teeth clacked. She hadn’t so much as blinked since the doctor had entered the room. “Not at all.”
“Excellent. Well, I’ve taken a look at the radiographs. Anita, please?” The nurse handed him the tablet she’d been carrying under her arm, which he then held up for the Broadsides as he swiped through the scans. “What I see here—”
“Is that I’m upside-down.”
Spencer grabbed her hand. “What horrible news. Is there surgery for it?”
“But first,” said Karynne, “is it a preexisting condition?”
Her husband didn’t care if being upside-down was preexisting. He’d do whatever it took—dip into savings, cash out his 401(k), create a GoFundMe account if he had to.
Dr. Peacock cast the couple a soft-boiled smile as the nurse corrected the device’s auto-tilt settings. “My apologies,” he said. “Thank you, Anita. No, Karynne, being upside down isn’t the issue. Anita’s got you back to where you should be, or at least to where you are at present.”
“Where am I at present?”
“Your skull, ribs, and upper extremities,” said Dr. Peacock, “all look good.”
The patient shielded her face with her hands. This was just what she was afraid of.
“I’m sorry?” said the physician. “What, exactly, were you afraid of? These are the healthy bones of a middle-aged woman who drinks her milk and gets plenty of exercise. There’s no reason to worry about them, and I commend you for maintaining your healthy habits. Unfortunately, it was in the lower extremities that I found cause for much concern.”
Mrs. Broadside nearly tripped over the paper sheet as she jumped to her feet on the exam table. “I’m listening.”
“Anita, if you please?”
The nurse took the tablet and navigated to the next set of X-rays. The screen split into four smaller squares containing scans of the patient’s legs and feet.
Karynne didn’t see anything unusual.
Dr. Peacock’s nod straddled the line between sympathy and pity. “These things have a tendency to slip past the untrained eye, and my eyes may be going, but you can rest assured they’re still trained.” He pointed to several large, bright streaks on her tibiae, fibulae, metatarsals, and phalanges. “You see these spots here? These areas are much—well, much whiter than they should be.”
“What does that mean? Aren’t bones supposed to be white?”
“Yes, but not this white. These are whiter than a Rod Stewart concert. Whiter than a Purdue Pharma shareholders’ meeting. Whiter than Seinfeld, if you can believe it.”
“I almost can’t,” Spencer said.
“These regions,” and here Dr. Peacock paused to wipe a nonexistent blemish from his spectacles, “are indicative of what’s known to the medical community as Odium generis ossa—‘bones of race hate,’ or, if you like, just plain old ‘racist bones.’”
Slowly, carefully, Karynne lowered herself back into a seated position and wrapped an arm around her husband. “I was right, Spencer. There is a reason I’ve been acting so strange. Finally, some good news for once.”
“If that’s the good news, I’d hate to hear the bad,” Anita said.
“The bad news is that I was lying and didn’t even know it when I told everyone there wasn’t a racist bone in my body. I said it all the time—”
“Usually after a Bacardi night.”
“Most likely, you were correct—at the time,” said Dr. Peacock. “Odium generis ossa has no typical onset. In rare instances, it manifests in childhood, in others at an advanced age, and in still others—like yours—smack in the prime of one’s life. With genetic transmissions, it can lie dormant for a number of years before the patient exhibits symptoms.” He glanced at the painting of the cat. Under its bewildered eyes he’d delivered the same news to more patients than he could count on an abacus. “But racist bones can also be acquired through even casual contact with a carrier, such as an uncle at Thanksgiving or a coworker with a Parler handle. There’s also overwhelming evidence that it spreads through prolonged exposure to the comment sections on Facebook.”
“And on MSN and Yahoo!,” said the nurse, “and don’t forget that AOL News is still a thing.”
“I don’t use any of those, and I don’t think I got it from Facebook. Most of the comments I read on there are about how users aren’t racist.”
“That’s one of the disease’s most common symptoms,” the physician said. “As are wearing blackface, waiting to apologize for it until the photos leak, and then claiming in your apology that you hadn’t understood what was wrong with wearing it in the first place.”
“Well, I haven’t worn blackface. Maybe I’m not as bad as I thought.”
“That’s what they all say,” said Dr. Peacock.
“But what if—and I’m asking for a friend here—what if you wore blackface only once, years ago, way back in college, and you were really drunk at the—”
Karynne rapped her husband’s wrist. “So we know what the problem is. What can we do about it? Please tell me there’s a treatment.”
Dr. Peacock placed the tablet in his lap, leaned forward, and folded his dappled hands. “First, know that you’re not alone. The numbers aren’t precise, for reasons that should be obvious. The sad fact is that many Americans—some say seventy-four million, but it’s much higher than that, in my estimation—suffer from Odium generis ossa. They’re in our neighborhoods, they’re at our jobs, they’re respected leaders in business, and you’d better believe that more often than not they’ve occupied positions at the highest levels of government.”
“Funny, I don’t know of anyone who’s had it.”
“Don’t tell me,” said the wise egg, “that you’ve never heard of Papa John.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Broadside. “Yes, I suppose he goes without saying.”
“Most people go undiagnosed and untreated to the end of their lives. They might have a vague awareness of the issue, but again, for reasons that should be obvious, they prefer to remain in the dark. Others, like Mr. Miller, were diagnosed as early as middle school, but decide it’s not such a bad thing and take it as a mark of pride.”
Spencer said, “Are you sure you should be sharing Mr. Miller’s medical history with us?”
“I’m not saying anything that everybody doesn’t already know.” Dr. Peacock lifted the tablet from his lap and caressed the screen’s pale bones. “Anyway, the problem with leaving the diagnosis untreated is that it doesn’t stay localized. It spreads with the swiftness of a cougar from bone to bone until, eventually, it’s corrupted the whole skeleton, and the next thing you know you’re shouting ‘Free Kyle!’ for reasons you can’t explain.”
“How long does it take to get to that point?” asked Karynne.
“Days, weeks, months, sometimes years.” The doctor tried to stand, couldn’t, waited for the nurse to help him out of the chair. “It’s hard to say. The scans and your recent behavior indicate that yours is already in a frighteningly advanced state. We don’t normally see patients calling the police on birthday parties—or census workers or barbecues, for that matter—until the affliction has spread to at least sixty percent of their bones.”
“Then what do you suggest? I can’t go on living like this. What are my options?”
“When early detections occur,” said Dr. Peacock, “a simple graft is the best course. Sadly, yours has metastasized to such a degree as to make this impossible. I’m sorry to say that the only viable option at this point is amputation.”
Karynne smushed her face into Spencer’s shoulder, digging it in like a mole in the drab earth as she bawled. “My God, I’ll never run again.”
“But it’s running, most of all,” her husband said, “that gives her peace of mind.”
“When it comes to our health, we all have to make sacrifices,” the doctor said.
“Aren’t there any other treatments? Anything at all we could try before—before amputation?”
Josh Cook is an MFA candidate at Lindenwood University. In 2009, he earned an MA from Indiana University with a thesis on Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. His fiction has appeared in journals including Across the Margin, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Idle Ink, and Sage Cigarettes. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two dogs. Josh recommends the Kheprw Institute.